Run the Jewels: ‘We want the oppressors to know they haven’t created complete hopelessness yet’
Killer Mike and El-P on George Floyd’s death and their mix of serious politics and goofiness
Run the Jewels: ‘We have some action to do now,’ say Killer Mike and El-P. Photograph: Tim Saccenti
Run the Jewels have had one of the more improbable rises to fame in recent hip-hop history. Two figures nearing 40, from the genre’s margins – Killer Mike on the fringes of Outkast’s Atlanta-based circle of rappers and producers, his partner El-P a founder member of Company Flow and long-standing critical darling of east-coast underground rap – who pooled their resources to record a mixtape. They gave it away and watched, astonished, as it and its two successors became runaway successes.
It happened despite the fact that their music – political, angry, more about lyrics than hooks – is grounded in the golden age hip hop of Public Enemy and EPMD, and swims against the genre’s prevalent trends. Yet for all they profess a certain mystification about Run the Jewels’ success, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that they’re the right band for the moment: an alternately surreal and furious response to a world spinning bizarrely, horribly out of control.
Now is the time to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise… We don’t want to see Targets burning, we want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burned to the ground
The key moment in their history may have been the night in 2014 they played St Louis hours after the announcement that the police officer Darren Wilson would not face charges after shooting an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Every other gig in the city was cancelled, but Run the Jewels performed. Mike addressed the audience beforehand, his voice breaking with emotion as he talked about his fears for his children.
Footage of his speech went viral. Now another of his speeches, made in horrifyingly similar circumstances, has gone viral again. I speak to the pair two days after George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died after a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes as he complained he could not breathe. Rioting had yet to spread from Minneapolis across the United States, but the lyrics of Walking in the Snow – a track from their forthcoming album, RTJ4, that references the 2014 death of Eric Garner – have already taken on a terrible new currency: “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Till my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on the couch and watch it on TV / The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.”
After our meeting, Mike’s op-ed for the daily news website Colorlines is published, under his real name, Mike Render, encouraging “people who look like me” to “take seriously their second amendment rights… The only person you can count on to protect yourself and your family is you… I encourage gun ownership to my wife, my son and daughters, your sons and daughters and all black people.”
Then, when the rioting spreads to Atlanta, he appears at a press conference with the city’s mayor, fighting back tears as he gives an extraordinary, eloquent speech. “It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with the enemy,” he says. “It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organisation. Now is the time to plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise… We don’t want to see Targets burning, we want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burned to the ground.” The speech struck such a chord that there are calls for Mike to run for office: “Killer Mike is a leader I hope to vote for one day,” the comedian Sarah Silverman says.
All that is to come, but the sentiment is mirrored in our interview. On rioting, he says: “It feels like nobody gives a shit when you’re black. That’s why you burn down your own community, not because you want to burn down your own community but because you feel like nobody gives a shit.
Now we’ve had to sit in our houses for 60 days, I think people can kind of understand why rock’n’roll guys might tear up their hotel room. Doesn’t make it right. Doesn’t make rioting right
“You know, I used to wonder: why did rock’n’roll guys tear up their hotel room? Well, you’ve never had the exhilaration of entertaining thousands of people, then going back to your room alone, away from your wife and children and family – coupled with drugs and anxiety; you might tear up a room. Now that we’ve had to sit in our houses for 60 days, I think people can kind of understand that. Doesn’t make it right. Doesn’t make rioting right.”
The media reporting of protests doesn’t help this feeling that the killing of black people doesn’t trouble the majority, he says. “It really does feel like nobody gives a shit, even when they do, because the media is… not going to tell you that there were white people on the ground and black people on the ground, different races and sexes.
“They’re going to preach separation, they’re going to preach fear, conservatism v liberalism – they’re going to keep stoking those fires. So we have some action to do now. Giving a shit is the first phase: now let’s progress it.”
Meanwhile, El-P, real name Jaime Meline, is optimistic that this could be time of real change – and that the status quo may be tilting. “I want the oppressors, the enemy, to know that they haven’t created complete hopelessness yet,” he says. “I want motherf***ers to know that there are people from every cultural line that are ultimately not going to accept this.
“I don’t want them to think they are off the hook. I look at these riots and I see white people, black people, Asians, women and men – and I know this shit is coming to a head. It’s getting to the point where your whole system of racism does not apply any more to the spiritual and mental mindset of the new generation.
“We have outgrown you, despite your best efforts to keep us in the same place. You are in power, but you are outmoded. You’re the old form of human. And the new form is coming for your neck.”
Speaking over Zoom – Mike at home in Atlanta, El-P in New York – the pair say the way the coronavirus pandemic has been handled in the US is shocking, if not surprising. El-P offers up a customarily colourful analogy to explain the way it has been politicised and used to stoke division. “I’ve had this conversation with Mike a bunch of times. Mike has said to me, ‘I just want aliens to advance so we can all bond together,’ and I’m here to tell you, Mike, that’s not going to happen! The aliens have invaded, and guess what? We didn’t come together!
“It’s unbelievably depressing. I’ve never thought in my life that I would see someone politicise a virus. But I should have known, because I saw Aids ravage the gay community, and my friends, my parents, lost dozens and dozens of good friends. The same lineage of politician was in office, and they completely ignored the people they considered to be the fringes of society.”
In 2018 Run the Jewels had elected to take a sabbatical after, as Mike puts it, “eight years on the road”. The pair were “exhausted, not only as performers but a little bit as friends, too,” says El-P, a striking admission given their celebrated bromance. Interviewing them over Zoom, you notice how the pair finish each other’s sentences, and frequently seem to be addressing each other as much as me. “Well, whatever minuscule issues that might have been there are magnified,” El-P says, nodding, “because you’re living together on a bus for a year and a half, so you end up wanting to strangle your friend. You wake up and think: How can I kill you and get away with it, how can I kill you but still be in the group?”
Mike became a political pundit, activist, TV star and a loud advocate for the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders (who was photographed making Run the Jewels’ signature hand gesture – one hand cocked in imitation of a pistol, the other clenched in a fist).
“What I learned from [campaigning with Sanders] is that it’s all about money,” he says, sighing. “Money has totally rotted and corrupted our system, and, more than that, we’ve grown so apathetic that we are not beating their heads on a local level to change that. I’m hoping that, within my lifetime, we’ll see a change in that.”
He also pursued a TV career. His hilarious and thought-provoking Netflix show, Trigger Warning, saw him attempting to get members of the Crips and Bloods gangs to market their own brand of soda and to start a new religion based around worshipping a friend of his, nicknamed Sleep.
El-P, meanwhile, wrote the soundtrack for Capone, the acclaimed Tom Hardy movie about the gangster’s decline into dementia. When they reconvened, in the hallowed environs of New York’s Electric Ladyland and Miami’s Shangri-La studios, “with Bruce Springsteen sauntering by to take a leak and being nice to us, and Rick Rubin coming in and doing yoga and giving us comments”, they found themselves making a noticeably different album.
Their previous record, RTJ3, was completed before Trump’s presidency began and was, says Mike, “a blue record, like Picasso mourning the death of a friend… There were times in the last record when I was set to go to the studio and record, and I would turn on the news and see another black man has been murdered on our streets and I’d just break: ‘El, I’m sorry, I can’t come today.’”
Its successor has a less elegiac energy. “With this record, you know how life pushes you on your hands the first time, you sit there for a minute like, ‘Goddamn, what the f***?’ You’re fearful of living? Then you get up and you run. You run towards the anger and the danger and the wild frenetic good times that is hip hop.
The best thing that could ever happen to the world is if Run the Jewels was just blathering nonsense. We don’t want this s*** to be on point. It’s because of that truth that we let ourselves be stupid and surreal on our records. We need that, too
“That was the spirit of this record: we’re going to tighten up, we’re going to hardcore, people will think we’re going to become some emo band, but that’s not what we are. We’re Run the Jewels… We’ll punch you in the face.”
And so the beats are markedly harder, the contrast between the righteous fury of their sociopolitical rhymes and those that deal with goofy “stupid shit” – which is as much a part of their appeal as their more serious side – more starkly pronounced.
“Literally, we were looking up from the table,” says El-P, “and I’m, like, ‘Okay, here I’m talking about a cat shitting on my carpet and Mike’s talking about shooting a poodle, and then in the next song we’ve got [Rage Against the Machine’s vocalist] Zack de la Rocha talking about police brutality.’ You’re hearing who we really are. Me and Mike agree on a lot, not only just the deep shit. We agree that it’s funny to talk wildly about obviously ridiculous over-the-top violence towards a poodle.”
For their music’s apparent currency, Mike says he isn’t sure about the “right band for the times” line. “When I rap I’m not reacting to the time, I’m just rapping about the societal conditions. I’m not specifically talking about anyone, because those names are interchangeable. Trump is interchangeable with Nixon is interchangeable with Reagan is interchangeable with so many other evil motherf***ers who have held that office.
“As bad as Trump is for our time, imagine what it was like when other presidents were in even worse times, when Eugene Debs [an American socialist] was running for president against Woodrow Wilson – they locked him up [on charges of sedition for his opposition to the first World War].”
“If anything, it’s a source of mild discomfort to us that our music is seemingly relevant,” El-P says. “The best thing that could ever happen to the world is if Run the Jewels was just blathering nonsense, if we’re just two assholes who are completely out of touch with reality. We don’t want this shit to be on point. It’s because of that truth that we allow ourselves to be completely stupid and surreal on our records as well. We need that, too.”
And, as if to prove their point, they move on to talking about their plans for a Run the Jewels feature film: “A buddy criminal action comedy… a f***ed-up version of The Blues Brothers.” “It looks like it’s very possible that it will happen,” El-P says, smiling. “Hopefully, you’ll see me and Mike screeching through the streets in a Grand National, shooting Nazis.” – Guardian
RTJ4 is released on Friday, June 5th, on Jewel Runners